How Opioids Affect The Brain
Opioid is a word used to classify all substances derived from Opium. This covers the Opiates; substances extracted from Opium, such as Morphine and Heroin. It also covers synthesized drugs that structurally resemble Morphine and it’s derivatives. The drug’s primary effect is an analgesic or a painkiller, but it has secondary effects that researchers are taking advantage of for medicinal purposes.
What are Opioids Used For?
They have many uses, despite their natural purpose. Here’s the list of all the ways the drugs are utilized.
- Treatment for Chronic Pain. Opioids like codeine and hydrocodone have formulations that allow slow release of the drug. This is used to treat conditions with pain that’s both moderate and constant, like muscle infractions.
- Treatment for Acute Pain. Certain formulations like Fentanyl and Morphine are better suited for reducing pain instantly. This is ideal in cases such as broken bones and moderate muscle damage. These formulations are fast acting, allowing relief and reduction of anxiety, easing the first-aid and treatment process for both the patient and the physician/medic/nurse.
- Used as a Sedative. Opioids have a powerful calming effect. They can be used to manage heavy anxiety or as sleeping pills. The drug itself won’t cause unconsciousness like Barbiturates or Ether, but instead, facilitate sleep by reducing neural firing. Ever had a night where your mind zigs zags all around the place and you can’t sleep? That’s what sleeping pills are designed to reduce.
- Suppression of Diarrhea. Opioids have a side effect that causes constipation. This is due to its effect of reducing the movement of your intestines and bowels. Researchers have taken advantage of this side-effect and created Loperamide, one of the most common antimotility medications available over the counter.
Loperamide has been specifically formulated not to cause any euphoric effects, so taking a lot of Loperamide only leads you to liver and kidney damage, along with a trip to the ICU.
- Suppression of Cough. Another side effect of opioids, which is why early formulations of cough syrups have a small amount of Codeine them. Abuse and extraction of the drug from the formulation have led researchers to develop a new derivative called Dextromethorphan. The new ingredient still suppresses coughing, but like Loperamide does not reach the brain, preventing any psychoactive effects. (But the joy of not coughing when you have a dry cough is)
- Treatment of Morphine/Heroin Addiction. The formulation called Methadone is basically neutered Morphine. It makes the brain think that it has heroin or morphine in its system, but with significantly less psychoactive effects.
How does it work in helping addicts? The demon all heavy users avoid is withdrawal. It causes significant discomfort in both the mind and body. People experience aggression, anxiety, and restlessness, followed by near-crippling headaches, vomiting, muscle aches, and diarrhea. It’s perhaps the total opposite of the high and sense of well being they experience.
Methadone works by tricking the brain that it has taken a dose of the drug, which either stops or dramatically reduce withdrawal effects. Methadone is then slowly tapered off, meaning patients will take less and less of it as the weeks go by. Using this method, they can virtually avoid withdrawal while safely recovering from their addiction.
How Opioids Affect the Brain
It has three effects in total. One is physical, the other is mental, and the last one is behavioral.
Our brain uses certain chemicals to relay messages to our body. These chemicals are known as neurotransmitters. They govern pain, pleasure, sleeping cycles, muscle movements, and much more.
One such neurotransmitter, among the many ones our brains use, is called “Endorphin.” It literally means “Endogenic Morphine” or “Morphine created inside our body.” Endorphin is responsible for keeping neurons from sending and receiving messages, especially for pain. Endorphin is responsible for keeping our moods in check, so when you are suddenly excited because your favorite actor is making a guest appearance in a comic-con, the one that calms you down and keeps you from bouncing off the walls is Endorphin.
Morphine is chemically similar to Endorphins, so when they are injected into the body, they are quickly distributed into the bloodstream, affecting all your nerves and your spinal cord, producing the painkilling effect.
When it reaches the brain, the chemicals pass through the blood-brain barrier, goes into the brain and causes a euphoric effect, all because it also affects another neurotransmitter called Dopamine, aka the reward chemical. Dopamine is responsible for feelings of satisfaction, especially when you fulfill a bodily need such as eating when you’re hungry or drinking while you’re thirsty. It’s what pilots our desires to ensure that we only take what’s good for us.
When Morphine reaches the brain, not only does it block the neurotransmitters responsible for pain, it also encourages the production and absorption of Dopamine, giving your body a “rewarding” feeling. This is one of the addictive qualities of this drug.
The behavioral effect applies if someone has constant stressors and troubles, and gets a dose of this product, they’ll feel a sense of escape, away from the stress and the troubles. As soon as the drug’s effect wears off, all the negativity will come pouring back, bit by bit. This gives the person the option to take this again, (provided they have a steady supply.) The brain sees this as “good” for the body due to the dopamine release and the overall emotional satisfaction, so it basically influences itself to take more of the drug. This is how morphine, heroin and any other substances cause addiction.
Can Opioids Cause Depression?
Depression is short for Major Depressive Disorder, is not like someone hearing bad news and felt sad all day. It’s also not something people just “snap” out of. Depression is a change in the brain’s chemistry, leading to a behavioral change. Not all depression is caused by psychological conditions or stress, some of them can be caused by physiological conditions such as thyroid abnormalities.
Since opioids cause changes in the brain chemistry, can it possibly cause depression? Unlikely right? Since Opioids like Morphine causes the opposite: feelings of euphoria, contentment, and good well-being.
Opioids can cause Depression. Not during the high, but when the substance leaves the body. This is because taking in Opioids can raise the brain’s perception of what “normal and happy” is. As continuous intake of opioids alters the person’s idea of what feels good, the brain raises and raises the ceiling until the opioid effect is “normal and happy.”
When the brain’s standard is high enough, everything else, even the most excitable things to normal people, will not trigger happiness. This makes everything dull and unstimulating, leading to depression. A deadly loop is formed when the person realizes that the cure for this depression is to take more drugs.
This also has to do with the way the brain adapts. The brain has two rules among many, one of them is “If you don’t use it, lose it,” and the other is homeostasis, meaning everything must be balanced. If you have too much of something, like Endorphin and Dopamine, the brain stops producing more and creates ways to remove the excess.
When a person continually takes in Opioids, the brain stops producing the neurotransmitters that overwhelm your brain via the Homeostasis rule. Soon enough, the brain will realize that it doesn’t need the parts that create dopamine since it has a steady supply already. Following the “If you don’t use it, lose it,” rule the brain shuts dopamine creation down, for good.
What does this mean for the poor addict? It means nothing will ever make the person happy except the drugs. Satisfying the primary needs such as hunger and thirst won’t matter, even sex won’t be rewarding.
Thankfully, there’s a ray of hope as there are procedures and therapies that may reverse the condition, but success is not guaranteed.
Can Opioids Cause Pain?
Opioids are meant to relieve a person of pain. Even the most grievous of pain sensations, such as those that can cause a heart attack, can be removed, or at least extremely diminished by Opioids. Yet, there are cases where Opioids can cause pain, and increase pain.
The more of the same toxin that enters the body, the more countermeasures it will do. It will create special enzymes and antibodies to make itself resistant to the toxin. The same rule applies with bacteria and viruses; if you’re infected once and you survive, the same bacteria/virus will have fewer chances of infecting you or make you downright immune to it, like measles and chickenpox.
The more opioids you take the more enzymes and proteins the body makes to negate it. This means the effect will be shorter than before. If you’re taking it for pain, in comparison, feeling less of the painkilling effect leads to feeling more pain.
Nerve and Brain Diseases
Certain infections in the brain can cause the nerves to malfunction. One such effect is the negation of certain neurotransmitters, such as endorphin and dopamine. If the brain cannot process them, then taking opioids will have no effect, and sometimes, may even produce the opposite effect. These conditions are rare and far between, but a possibility.
Continuous exposure to Opioids can cause a paradoxical effect on the nerves. This will result in the nerves becoming more “excitable” to pain response, making affected people highly sensitive to certain pain stimuli. This was found common in patients who have used low-potency opioids like codeine for more than a year.
Opioids will rarely cause direct pain unless it’s due to specific cases. However, it can make you more sensitive to pain, and less sensitive to the drug, if taken long enough.